Margaret Crow and her two young daughters made themselves comfortable yesterday on a small patch of grass on Western Plaza in downtown D.C., where more than 150 people, mostly women, gathered to hear the intimate stories of people who said their lives were, or could have been, made better because abortions are legal.

The testimonies opened a new phase in the ongoing debate over abortion as the National Abortion Rights Action League attempted to refocus the issue of abortion on the women who ultimately make that decision by holding a 17-hour-long "speak-out" that consisted entirely of personal accounts.

The speak-out marks the start of a year-long campaign to remind the public that the 1.5 million women who have abortions yearly are more than faceless statistics, and to recapture momentum from the antiabortion movement that has concentrated on the unborn children, rather than their mothers.

More than 1,500 letters from across the country were read, organizers said.

"The focus of the issue had really moved away from the men and women who make decisions around abortion in this country every single day," said Nanette Falkenberg, executive director of the abortion rights league, which claims more than 250,000 members. "What we wanted to have happen was to bring the debate back to those people, to have their voices heard."

At the same time, across the street in a crowded J.W. Marriott Hotel meeting room, officials and supporters of the National Right to Life Committee assailed the abortion rights activists' letter campaign.

"I feel they are being exploited by NARAL," said Patti Haywood-McKinney, cofounder of Women Exploited by Abortion, a group of what its organizers say are some 10,000 women who have had abortions and regret their decisions. " . . . It's NARAL using them as a mouthpiece."

Kay James, director of the antiabortion committee, said after a 90-minute press conference, "There are some things about which there ought to be no choice in a civilized society. One of those things is the killing of unborn children."

On the other side of the debate, Margie Pitts Hames, a long-time abortion rights advocate in Georgia, said more than 20 million women have had abortions since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized it.

But, she maintained, women remain "overwhelmingly silent" about the choices they have made.

Consequently, the antiabortion movement had been able to gain ground.

Falkenberg agreed, saying that there is a stereotype that women who had have abortions are selfish. "But when you hear the stories, these are definitely not decisions made lightly," she said. "They are decent, caring women who made decisions that involved their families, that involved their kids.

Crow, 40, listened and watched her youngsters, 3 years old and 10 months old play. "I think this is important for their future that they have the option," said Crow, a District housewife and writer who said she had an abortion 15 years ago. "I'd like to think they'll be perfect, but maybe, someday, they will have to have one."